What Is a Filibuster and How Do They Work?

(Last Updated On: June 25, 2019)
What Is a Filibuster and How Do They Work?
The Jimmy Stewart filibuster scene from “Mr. Smith goes to Washington”

What Is a Filibuster?

If you’re not familiar with the filibuster, you’ve probably got a fairly decent idea on what legislative obstruction is. Maybe you’ve heard of “political stonewalling,” something the filibuster is closely related with. The end goal of a filibuster is to prevent legislative decision making, normally by forcing the debate to go way too long. But how exactly does a filibuster work? We’ll get into it, as well as dispel a few misconceptions regarding them.

Generally speaking, a filibuster impedes legislative work by exploiting the rule of unlimited debate. Basically, a legislative body (think Parliament or the US Senate) can discuss something for as long as they’d like until a decision is made. As long as the discussion is being held, a decision is never made, and political obstruction has occurred.

Some Funky Filibusters

Of course, when you’re talking about something, there’s only so much to actually talk about. So you get stuff where representatives just start talking about random garbage. June 12, 1935, Huey Long attempted a filibuster by talking about cooking food from Louisiana. The filibuster ended when Long had to pee.

Not to be stopped by cooking, Strom Thurmond gave a filibuster in 1957 against the Civil Rights Bill. To make sure he wouldn’t be halted by a full bladder, he had an intern prepare a bucket so he could pee with one foot still on the floor. In 2001 Irene Smith tried the same thing with a garbage can. It didn’t end as well for her.

There’s also been reading the phone book and Ted Cruz reading Dr. Seuss (the latter isn’t really a filibuster on a technical level, but we wanted an excuse to bring up).

Honestly, we could make a whole independent post about weird filibusters. To think, these are just the Americans too. Filibusters exist worldwide.

The First Filibusters

When we said filibusters exist worldwide, we weren’t kidding. The first known filibuster was all the way back in Rome. Like Julius Caesar Rome. Cato the Younger really didn’t like Caesar, and employed the first filibusters against him (sometimes out of spite). If you want an idea of how much Cato didn’t like Caesar, he killed himself because was unwilling to live in a world led by Julius Caesar.

The Roman Senate had a rule way back when; senatorial work would stop at dusk. So Cato would exploit this rule by talking until dusk, so all members of the senate would just go home instead of coming to a consensus.

There was the time when Caesar was awarded triumph by the Roman Senate. But he was also 40 at the time, and wanted to run for Roman consul (basically the highest elected position back then). Caesar was not allowed to enter the city until he received his triumph ceremony, but to be consul, he had to be in the city. Should Caesar enter the Forum then, he would forfeit his triumph. While he did propose basically standing in spirit, Cato filibustered that out of happening, forcing Caesar to choose triumph or consul (he chose consul).

Is a Filibuster Constitutional?

Some have argued that the filibuster is unconstitutional (American). Since the senate requires at least 60/100 vote to pass something, a 41:59 filibuster allows the 41 minority to overturn the 59 majority. Therefore the minority vote becomes worth more than the majority, defeating the purpose of majority vote. But the US Constitution doesn’t actually prescribe a time frame for the Senate to debate legislation. So technically the filibuster isn’t unconstitutional. It’s one of those weird grey things.

But if a filibuster goes awry, there’s always what the Senate calls the Nuclear Option. No joke, that’s what they call it. It basically allows them to circumvent the 2/3 majority vote and return to just simple majority (whichever is greater than 50%).

Know your long, funky filibusters? Test yourself here.

About the Author:

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Kyler is a content writer at Sporcle living in Seattle, and is currently studying at the University of Washington School of Law. He's been writing for Sporcle since 2019; sometimes the blog is an excellent platform to answer random personal questions he has about the world. Most of his free time is spent drinking black coffee like water.